Purely a pipe dream two years back, today the full-featured, cost-effective professional digital video editing solution is as nearly real as real-time operation itself. Which is to say, tantalizingly close, thanks to three sub-$1,100 systems from Canopus, Matrox, and Pinnacle. But how do these tools compare to one another— and how close do they come to that elusive editing ideal?
February 2003|The ideal video editing system would offer a tantalizing range of creative options, instantaneous editing responsiveness, and real-time output to analog tape, DV camera, or MPEG-2 for DVD production. Ease of use and format quality are also high on the wish list, as is a price tag under $1,100.
Impossible to achieve at any cost only a scant two years ago, today this ideal is not far-fetched. Here we review three real-time video editing systems that come intriguingly close to this definition: Canopus' DVStorm2 ($1,088 at www.videoguys.com), Matrox's RT X.100 ($999.95 at same) and Pinnacle's Pro-ONE RDTV ($799.95 after rebate). All three products accept both analog and DV input and work primarily with Adobe Premiere 6.5, though you'll have to spend about $300 more to get Premiere for the DVStorm2. However, Canopus also throws its StormBay breakout box into the bundle.
The common threads running through these products—real-time operation and Premiere—could easily mislead you into believing that they're similar in capabilities and operation. But in reality, the exact features and performance profiles of the respective products are extraordinarily idiosyncratic. We're not reviewing chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry here, we're reviewing Almond Saffron Pistachio, Berry Merry Gingerbread, and (my favorite) Chocolate Raspberry Truffle.
As in any frank discussion of contemporary "real-time" digital video production, we should start with the caveat that real time doesn't always mean real time. The first limit is that only selected effects, usually those supplied by the vendor, operate in real time. In addition, only a limited number of simultaneously implemented special effects will operate in real time, and then only if applied in the proper order. Finally, sometimes real time means real-time preview, sometimes real-time analog output, sometimes real- time DV output, and sometimes all three. If you're starting to get a headache, you'll know exactly how we feel. To try to break down both our thoughts and presentation, we've rated each board in a number of critical categories, as shown in Table 1. Before getting started on this list, let's spend a bit of time getting to know the three products.
The original DVStorm debuted Canopus' scalable video architecture, which relies primarily on the power of the host CPU to deliver up to five real-time video tracks, a pretty hot number given that both Matrox and Pinnacle are limited to two video tracks in real time. DVStorm was also the first product to render supported DV effects in real time, a significant time-saver.
With DVStorm2, Canopus now includes the StormEncoder MPEG hardware for real-time MPEG-2 capture, throwing in Ulead's DVD Workshop SE to complete the DVD au- thoring connection. Also new is one-pass capture and scene detection to more efficiently get the video to hard disk, and additional filters and special effects.
The base version of DVStorm2 ships with all Canopus capture and editing software, including the popular Storm Edit. As with all products, we used the supporting programs as little as possible, and spent the most time in Adobe Premiere.
We requested that vendors supply their products pre-installed in systems to minimize installation and compatibility issues. Canopus supplied the DVStorm2 in a dual AMD Athlon processor with 1GB RAM, well above the Pentium III or AMD Athlon 700mHz recommendation. Since CPU horsepower drives most performance, the DVStorm2 makes the most sense for those with very fast single-processor or dual-processor systems.
From an I/O standpoint, you can run DVStorm2 two ways: out of the back of the computer or via StormBay, a breakout box that fits in a drive bay in your computer. Most people either love or hate StormBay; we disliked having the cables trailing down the front of the computer and found the movable breakout box offered by the other vendors more convenient.
The RT.X100 belongs to the new generation of Matrox video editing products that uses a hybrid approach for processing. On-board hardware is used for compositing and true 3D effects, while the host CPU performs tasks like color correction and chroma and luma keying. The X100 can deliver real-time performance on two layers of video and two layers of graphics, with high-powered systems delivering up to 16 simultaneous effects on these tracks.
The board is capable of real-time I,B,P capture to MPEG-2 format and comes bundled with Sonic Solutions DVDit! LE for authoring. Other notable bundled programs include Matrox MediaTools, for frame-accurate capture and logging; MediaExport, a batch-encoding tool; Pixelan's SpiceRack Lite, which provides organic transition effects; and Sonic Desktop's SmartSound Quicktrack for background music creation.
Matrox supplied the X100 in a Compaq Evo W4000 with a Pentium IV 2.4gHz processor with 512MB RAM. If you buy the X100, be sure to watch system requirements carefully, since the lowest recommended system, a Pentium III 1gHz, won't deliver real-time DV output, a key new feature. In addition, you'll need a second AV-rated drive to export MPEG-2 in real time, also pushing up the price of the base system. The X100 ships with a breakout box for analog audio/video input and output, but you have to reach around back to plug-in the DV cord.
Pinnacle Pro-ONE RTDV
Pinnacle offers two versions of the Pro-ONE, the base-level unit and the Pro-ONE RTDV, which outputs DV from the timeline in real time, which we tested. Unlike either the DVStorm2 or X100, the Pro-ONE is driven by its own hardware, which means you get the full complement of features when installing on an older computer, but get no extra real-time functionality in the latest speed burner. This means whatever system you use, you never get more or less than the rated three total channels in real time.
In addition to Premiere, Pinnacle includes TitleDeko RT, still our favorite title editor, Pinnacle Hollywood FX RT and Alpha Magic for transition effects, the aging DV Tools for capture and writing back to tape, and SmartSound Quick Tracks. The slightly enigmatic, but highly capable Pinnacle Impression, is included for DVD authoring.
Pinnacle supplied the product in a 2gHz Pentium IV computer with 512MB RAM, well over the 1gHz recommended minimum. From a usability standpoint, we liked Pinnacle's new breakout box the best, a sturdy metal-trimmed case with DV as well as analog I/O.
In addition to the usability testing that fueled the bulk of the following discussion, we performed both functional and qualitative tests. As you would expect, we focused our testing on potential problem areas like sound synchronization during analog capture, and are pleased to report that all three products capture a 47-minute analog tape without loss of synch.
Though we performed most tests using normal DV footage, all products successfully ran through a short suite of tests at 16:9 aspect ratio, including capture, editing, and output. Real-time performance here equaled that offered for normal DV footage on all products.
Finally, since many videographers also work with animations from programs like 3dsmax and Lightwave, we wanted to make sure that DV or MPEG-2 encoding wouldn't mangle our animated footage. So we encoded two animations into both formats with all three boards, again without exception.
Three days of testing only to find that everything works as advertised. We hate it when that happens!
Let's move into our usability tests, and then we'll conclude with our qualitative findings. For each category, we ranked each board first, second, or third, with ties allowed when the category was too close to call.
Matrox wins by a nose here, with the ability to scan and capture DV tapes simultaneously, and capture directly into MPEG-2 format. Canopus can also do both, but loses points because you have to work through several unintuitive programs to make all this happen, and because you can overwrite files when capturing several long files in Adobe Premiere larger than 2MB, creating potentially confusing reference files.
Pinnacle can't capture directly into MPEG-2 format or scan and capture DV tapes simultaneously. In addition, the ages-old DV Tools capture and edit suite is under-documented and couldn't complete our test batch capture. The only saving grace is an innovative file-splitter filter within Premiere that can scan a captured DV file for time code changes and split the file into segments. We like the workflow since both capture and scene detection occurs within Premiere, but when it works, DV Tools makes it much easier to find the scenes you're looking for.
Overall usability on the timeline is a combination of multiple factors, including performance, feature set, and quality. We deal with each factor in turn.
Performance includes two factors: the number of real-time effects and system responsiveness. Canopus wins in both areas.
On the test system, DVStorm2 pushed four simultaneous video tracks consisting of one background video and three rotating picture-in-picture effects. We ran our test for over ten minutes to be certain that the board wasn't running out of RAM, and playback remained smooth throughout. Then we added a title with no problem, but started experiencing audio drop- out when we started scrolling the text. In terms of performance, this was clearly the best we've seen.
In addition, hit the enter key and the real-time effects start rolling without perceptible delay, a moment or two faster than we experienced with both Matrox and Pinnacle.
Matrox performed as advertised in terms of real-time effects, but be careful of how you layer your effects. That is, you have to apply effects in a certain order, like color correction first, then chroma and luma key, then any hardware accelerated effect, or you lose real-time performance. This feels a bit left brain-logical for an essentially right-brain activity, but after you get burned a few times, you figure it out.
Pinnacle Pro-ONE also lived up to its stated real-time expectations, but they were less ambitious than those of either Matrox or Canopus. Given the architectures of the boards, however, expect the scores to reverse on any Pentium III system or low-end Pentium IV system.
We recognize that most producers tend to rely on straightforward cuts, dissolves, and wipes, and we appreciate their reserve. Still, if you're in the mood to experiment, you'll find Pinnacle's Hollywood FX transitions extremely innovative, though many don't have anti-aliasing enabled, which can roughen the edges a bit, an issue we'll discuss in our quality findings later. You can always enable both anti-aliasing and soft edges, the trick Matrox uses to control the jaggies, but you'll probably have to render. Control over these and other creative parameters is simply outstanding, however, and you'll find most transitions worth the wait if you decide to render.
Matrox accelerates most of Premiere's transitions to real time, as well as all supplied transitions from Pixelan. However, you select Matrox transitions from the same screens as 2D and 3D effects, and the presets feel a touch better-suited for effects rather than transitions.
Canopus has always played catch-up ball in this arena, and the new 3DRT transitions go a long way toward closing the gap, though they lack the creativity of Pinnacle's Hollywood FX. We found it interesting that Canopus created the eleven-track, four-and-a-half minute demo video for the DVStorm2 without using a single transition—clearly Canopus feels that most of the creative action is above the A>B line.
The real-time 2D effects of all products are significantly enhanced in their most recent iterations. All perform real-time color correction, real-time picture-in-picture effects, real-time slow and fast motion. Two of the three, Matrox and Canopus, perform real-time chroma key. So, the bar is definitely getting higher.
Though Pro-ONE lacks real-time chroma key, the winner in this category is still Pinnacle, due to the breadth and usability of its effects. The new Motion Tracker filter can track motion in the video, making it simple to apply lens flares, magnifying glass, or other effects over a specific spot in your video. Our experiments with Pinnacle's unique image stabilization tool were also very impressive.
Most important, however, was the usability of Pinnacle's effects. For example, as with Matrox, virtually all effects are key-frameable, but we found Pinnacle's controls more logical and intuitive. We also adored Pinnacle's motion filter, which provides much better precision than Premiere's tool, in addition to real-time operation, and its picture-in-picture controls are the best of the bunch. Finally, TitleDeko, Pinnacle's title utility, still offers the best combination of features and ease-of-use available.
Matrox scored big with their new automatic white balance tool and color correction tools in general, but we found the new real-time chroma key tools difficult to use, and they produced poor results. Though Premiere's chroma key function, used in the Pinnacle system by default, is a much blunter instrument, we found the concept of "similarity" of the key color much easier to grasp than adjusting the hue, saturation, and intensity. Sometimes, simpler is better.
Finally, Canopus added a bunch of really cool filters, like Pencil Sketch and old movie, and if multiple layers of rolling text and image effects fading in and out is your thing, DVStorm2 will make you think you died and went to heaven. However, you'll have to use Canopus' blend feature to get keyframe support for most effects, which is unintuitive, and preview is often limited when setting critical parameters. For example, you can't preview chroma key effects over the background video, which can make color selection and adjustment a touch of a gamble. In addition, picture-in-picture effects are somewhat limited compared to Pinnacle's.
Matrox simply outmuscles Pinnacle here, with more canned effects and more configuration options. Virtually all of Canopus' 3D effects are transitions, which were considered in that category.
After spending days with each program, this may be the project that convinces us that Windows XP Professional, used on all three test systems, is ready for prime time. Among the three contestants, Canopus wins the stability award, with zero crashes in any of our tests. Matrox crashed three times, topped by Pinnacle's five crashes, but only two after we downloaded the 2.01 version which proved much more stable that 2.0.
I remember the bad old days, testing motion JPEG cards back in the late 1990s, when you were lucky if you could boil an egg between crashes. In happy contrast, all of these 21st century products are rock solid.
Our quality-related tests focused on three areas: MPEG-2 encoding, the quality of captured analog footage, and the anti-aliased quality of 3D effects. Our MPEG-2 tests produced no noticeable difference in quality at 4Mbps, the lowest rate all three encoders could reach at full MPEG-2 resolution.
We did see a difference in analog capture quality, with Pinnacle delivering the cleanest video and Matrox the lowest quality using two different source clips. This is contrary to Matrox's findings as reported on their Web site, and may be peculiar to our test setup. However, if buying the Matrox unit primarily for analog capture, be sure to test for this soon after buying.
Finally, the general "word on the street" is that Pinnacle's 3D effects exhibit slightly more ragged edges than both Canopus or Matrox. We saw glimpses of this during our various production tasks, but typically only when previewing the video, and specifically not after rendering into MPEG-2 format.
This made us feel that the issue might be with the DV decoder rather than actual compressed quality. If you run into jagged edges, remember that Pinnacle usually includes both anti-aliasing and softness controls that can control this problem, albeit with some cost of rendering time.
Given our limited test suite and the potential arbitrariness of these findings, we did not award points in this category.
If you total the points, you'll find that Matrox beat both Pinnacle and Canopus by two points, but these totals are less important than the scores in the individual categories and other buying considerations. Think about the particular de- mands and circumstances of your work, and pick your system based on its performance in those areas most relevant. Also keep in mind where our testing parameters or testbed system reflect factors that may be different in yours. For example, had we factored in performance on lower-end systems or value, Pinnacle would have won easily.
All three systems are more than capable enough for most projects. Rather than rely on total points, you should find the product that best matches your editing style and computer setup. We offer these final closing comments about each product.
The DVStorm2 is a stable, high-performance product for those who work with multiple layers of text, images, and video, without the workflow rules required by the X100 and it's also a strong contender for DVD projects with real-time MPEG-2 capture and output, a separate MPEG-2 editing program, and Ulead's excellent DVD Workshop for authoring. Since it's largely software-based, the product can grow with you, increasing in performance as you upgrade from system to system.
Avoid this product if 3D effects are your thing, however, since it seriously lags behind the other two, and don't install it on an underpowered computer. Before buying, remember that keyframe controls for most effects are more complicated than with the other two products, and that preview is limited for chroma keying and some other effects.
In addition, some of Canopus' utilities are getting long in the tooth, and it's frustrating to have to browse through multiple applets with completely different interfaces to find the function that you need. With products like Procoder, Canopus has demonstrated their ability to design a cohesive, attractive interface, and one or two applications that pulled together MPEG-2 capture, tape scan, and capture, and similar functions would be welcome.
Matrox's RT.X100 is a polished product that delivers strong 2D and 3D functionality with a competent set of supporting applets for capture and output, including a batch-streaming media encoder. The RT.X100's DVD authoring credentials are also impressive, with real-time MPEG-2 capture and output and Sonic's DVDit! corporate-level DVD authoring software.
Like the DVStorm2, the X100 needs a powerful computer to shine, and you'll lose many real-time effects if you don't follow the rules of effect application. Though Matrox generally offers more extensive keyframe and other creative options, we didn't find them as intuitive as Pinnacle's.
Pinnacle's Pro-ONE RT is an extraordinarily solid product for a range of editing tasks. We found its 2D effects most useful and usable, especially for motion paths and key-framing. The ability to track motion and apply other filters to that motion will seal the deal for many producers. Pinnacle's Hollywood FX (transitions) and Title Deko (titles) are both best-in-class products that are very easy to use.
You can install the product on the recommended minimum and get full performance, a big consideration. However, Pro- ONE lacks real time MPEG-2 capture and Impression is not the most usable DVD authoring program we've seen, though it offers more DVD-oriented features than either DVDit! or DVD Workshop. Pinnacle should invest some effort in their capture and especially tape-scanning utilities; DV Tools used to be the best product available and now trails the pack.
COMPANIES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com
Canopus Corporation, www.canopus.com
Matrox Electronic Systems, Ltd., www.matrox.com
Pinnacle Systems, Inc., www.pinnaclesys.com